The systematic annihilation of my Steam list continues with the completion of 2 very mechanically and tonally different games that each possess a distinctly cartoonish aesthetic. I intended fully reviewing ‘Plants versus Zombies’ and ‘The Wolf Among Us’ initially, and though both are excellent games, there wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary about either to get me energetic enough for a lengthy review. As such, I am marking this as the announcement of a new series of short reviews titled ‘Flash Boil’.
Plants versus Zombies
Developed by: Popcap Games
Published by: Popcap Games
Released: 2009 (Windows), 2010 (Mac), 2011-2013 (Almost every other digital gaming platform)
Platforms: PC, Steam(Played), Mac, Android, PSN, PSVita, Nintendo DS, XBLA
Plants Versus Zombies (PvZ) is a Tower defense game where a variety anthropomorphic plants and fungi fend off waves of undead from the garden/home they inhabit. Each level involves a set number of monsters advancing towards the primary residence (with the goal being to eat your brains) and must be held back using offensive and defensive plants. You are allowed to choose a limited amount of plant types at the beginning of each level and the choice of plants will usually depend on the specific zombie types that appear (shown before the level begins).
Generally you need sunflowers to generate sunlight (your main resource for growing plants) and standard pea shooters that can damage most enemies. Large and small potatoes will delay the incoming zombies and buy time for setting up more defenses. There are plants that shoot gas that counteract zombies with screen doors, rapid fire pea shooters for the stronger zombies with traffic cones and buckets on their head. Pool levels will require seaweed to entangle swimming zombies and zombie dolphins. There are dancing zombies, pogo-stick zombies, zombies armored in (American) football gear, bungee zombies and more – most of which will have an opposing plant type useful in counteracting the zombies specific ability. There are also explosive plants for when things start to become overwhelming.
Sunlight is required for planting and naturally falls from the sky in low amounts. This default sunlight is really just to start planting your initial sunflowers, which are your primary resource generator. Planting triggers a cooldown, limiting the frequency a particular plant can be used, encouraging strategic thinking. Night missions mix this up by severely reducing the types of usable plants, while rooftop levels require the placing of dirt pots. Levels that include the swimming pool require the use of lilies to plant on the water’s surface.
PvZ’s simplistic game play is uniquely addictive. Clicking and dragging are the only controls available but allow you to select and place plants, collect sunshine and interact with the game in any other required way. You are given a few moments before the zombies attack to set up your initial defenses and from this point PvZ sucks you in, heavily engaging you as you try to maximize your efficiency by generating the most sun and setting up the most appropriate defenses. As the level progresses you attempt to continue establishing defensive and offensive plants in preparation for the large waves of enemies that attack at set points throughout the level. This is where the chaos begins and success depends on how effectively you have prepared. There is great satisfaction in eliminating the final zombie after being bombarded by a massive attack. Even failing isn’t frustrating, as you will be eager to restart the level with the gained experience of the first attempt and try out a different tactic.
It is this simplistic game play that will keep you playing – trying new strategies and discovering new zombie and plant types. Occasional mini-games appear throughout the main adventure to add variety to the normal level structure by having random plants spawn, or removing the sunlight resource and providing large amounts of the most powerful plants. Outside of the main adventure there are further mini-games and collectibles. You can generate money to purchase new plants, item slots and upgrades. It is the type of game that can make time disappear.
The game is also aesthetically adorable. Everything is designed in a charming and hilarious way. Even the shambling, fleshy, skeletal, rotting undead invokes a pleasant ‘awe’ response. The silly humor is evident in almost everything; from the enthusiastic ‘thriller’ dancing zombies to the large potatoes with their look of grim determination and the single tear they shed when being eaten.
There is very little not to like, but if I had to criticize I would say that it’s default difficulty is a bit easy. It can also take a long time to obtain enough gold for the next upgrade, as each level provides very little compared to the asking price. These are minor issues however and were not nearly enough to stop my enjoyment of the game.
You can probably guess that I recommend this game. It has been around for a long time but is just as pleasant to look at and play as it has always been. It’s generally goes for cheap and definitely worth checking out.
The Wolf Among Us
Developed by: Telltale Games
Published by: Telltale Games
Platforms: Steam(Played), Mac, Android, Playstation Platforms, Android Platforms, iOS and Xbox Platforms
The Wolf Among Us is a story focused adventure game. Events take place in Fabletown, a refuge for fables – fairly tale characters that have escaped their fantasy world and are surviving in this rundown, seedy section of New York. You play as Bigby, the sheriff attempting to keep the peace in Fabletown while also making sure that the inhabitants mask their fantastical identities from the unaware public (known as ‘Mundies’ or ‘Mundanes’). Creatures that cannot naturally pass as human use a magical substance called ‘Glamour’ to disguise themselves as regular people, an expensive compound that is both highly sought and regulated. Those who cannot afford ‘Glamour’ are sent to the farm – ostensibly a sanctuary, but effectively a prison for fables that cannot afford the disguising magic and have nowhere else to live.
The plot kicks off with the discovery of a murdered hooker on Bigby’s doorstep, prompting an investigation and generating fear that a serial killer of fables has emerged. The game is heavily character and story focused so I will not describe too much more about the events, but this initial discovery leads Bigby and allies into a complex and disturbing world within Fabletown where the more they discover the more at risk they become at ending up as victims themselves.
The Wolf Among Us is a creation from Taletell Games – the studio responsible for the excellent Walking Dead Series (the first season being one of my favourite games). If you are familiar with Telltale’s other games then you will be instantly familiar with the mechanics of The Wolf Among Us; mechanically it is identical to The Walking Dead. You interact with the world and its inhabitants through dialogue options, onscreen prompts, quick time events and pressured decision making. There is limited direct control over the character and for the most part interactions with the world and other NPC’s are generally used to move the story along.
It is the world of The Wolf Among Us that grips me the most. It’s filthy, seedy atmosphere oozes from every camera angle. Every shot has something to remind you of the squalor in which the characters live. Streets are un-kept, littered and lined with faulty lamps. Hallway florescent lights flicker to occasionally reveal boarded up or busted down doors. Cracked windows are common and billboards remind the public of those gone missing. Even safe locations will contain reminders, such as the neon lettering of a nearby watering hole seen through Bigby’s apartment window.
The colourful cartoonish aesthetic brilliantly manages to reinforce the falseness of everything. The subtle wrongness among all the lights and bright neon act as a constant reminder that everything is not as it seems, which also compliments the game’s cast. Almost every character is a ‘Fable’. A legend from an old fantasy story that modern audiences would associate with Disney’s presentations. Cinderalla, Beauty and Beast, The Little Mermaid and so on are characters within the story and are also not as they seem. As opposed to being the versions that we (‘Mundies’) expect, they are more closely related to the old folk tales. The European stories that were far more disturbing and and gruesome. These characters now involve themselves in whatever they can to survive, whether it be working multiple jobs, crime or prostitution.
As you progress through the story and encounter the different fables and how they survive, you will find circumstances becoming increasingly morally ambiguous. The game uses these opportunities to force you to make a decision that may negatively affect the life of a person who acted out of desperation. This to me, is the core game play of The Wolf Among Us. Ultimately the story will unfold to it’s conclusion regardless of your choices. However, your choices will effect the lives of those you encounter along the way, even after the main events have concluded.
There is little direct controlling of the main character, except during scenes of high intensity and violence in which you interact via quick time events and mouse aiming. I would generally consider these lazy mechanics in other games, but I felt that The Wolf Among Us could get away with their inclusion as the build up and tension leading to these incidents justifies their use – actions need to be quick and easy to interpret during a panic situation – a rare time when quick time events are appropriate.
A lot of time is spend investigating and conversing with the world’s inhabitants and building tension to brief but very intense encounters. Action is sparingly used, but packs a punch when it arises, especially when the more fantastical elements appear. The mechanics are simple but manages to avoid diminishing the experience.
I was engaged with The Wolf Among Us from start to finish, however I have one criticism that I feel is worth mentioning. As stated, your decisions will likely not effect how the overall plot is concluded but will influence the lives and opinions of others. For the most part these decisions make sense, but on some occasions it really bothered me when I was pushed to make a decision in which I had no position or authority to make.
To make a comparison, in The Walking Dead you play as Lee, a member of a group of survivors. You are trying to survive like everyone else and the decisions you make generally reflect your status as an equal in the group. You agree and argue with the others, and generally if you can get them to see reason then they will trust your decision.
In The Wolf Among Us Bigby is a Sheriff who, in many occasions is prompted to make decisions by other characters holding a definite higher rank. Decisions that likely have defined legal guidelines where referral outside of the law isn’t necessary. I would accept the argument that the dilemma is to be either: moral and illegal or legal and immoral, but only if I’m the only authority. At times characters of a higher official rank ask you to make a choice on an issue, then berate you for taking the option that contradicted their stance.
This happened only a few times but was none the less annoying each time. I found myself shouting ‘Why are you asking me!?’ I made a decision that was not mine to make and was chastised for making it.
Overall however, the Wolf Among Us is a very focused and compelling game and as such would recommend to those who enjoy immersing themselves into a detailed story and world. Episodes end on cliffhangers that will almost certainly have you diving right back in to the next one. The story focuses on a relatively small group of competently developed characters and never falls back on good/evil reasoning. Even the most reprehensible characters have reasons for their actions, even if it just makes sense to them – effort is made to have you at least understand their motivations. This in turn forces you to consider your decisions to an almost distressing degree. It is impressive to me that a game can invoke such moral consideration – a strong indicator to the amount of detail and care the creators poured into the world and it’s inhabitants.